“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens

There’s something about this time of year that makes me hanker for the rich, extravagant, plum-pudding prose of Dickens. A Christmas Carol is a bit too obvious, perhaps, and the long novels are a bit too … well, a bit too long, I guess – at least for a quick pre-Christmas read. There are those marvellous Sketches by Boz, of course, and the various little bits and pieces in various other collections. But I had been meaning to read Oliver Twist for some time now: I think the last time I read it, I was all of twelve years old, and I am sure that just about all I think I know about the novel is derived from David Lean’s film, or from Carol Reed’s film of the Lionel Bart musical, rather than from the novel itself.

It’s hard to know how to appraise a novel such as this. By the standards of, say, Austen or Eliot or James, or of just about any other major novelist of the nineteenth century, Oliver Twist is crude, lacking in nuance, in sophistication, in refinement. And it is lacking also in profundity, either in theme or in characterisation. The plotting also seems weak. For a street urchin known to be associated with a gang of crooks to be taken in by wealthy people and treated as one of their own is unlikely enough as it is, but when this happens not once but twice, one does get the impression that the author is struggling a bit with the plotline. And when all the various intrigues and past secrets are revealed near the end, they are done so in so perfunctory a manner that Dickens himself seemed as bored by them as most readers, I imagine, have been since.

So what is there in this novel to attract the reader? It has certainly become an icon: I doubt there is any other novel that contains so many iconic scenes and characters. But when one tries to identify its qualities – applying criteria of novelistic merit as derived from the likes of  Austen, Eliot, James, etc. – one struggles. Perhaps it is as well to forget these criteria: the novel, as a form, may achieve greatness by exhibiting other qualities too. And in this instance, they aren’t hard to identify: vividness, vigour, vivacity, vitality … and, no doubt, a great many other qualities beginning with “v”. The problem is, of course, that each of these qualities is more easily felt than described. Why is the image of a workhouse boy asking for more so very vivid? Why is the picture of Fagin and his gang of pickpocket boys so vivacious, so brimming with vitality? What is there so utterly compelling about the brutal violence of Sikes and the genuine decency of Nancy?

It is easy, too easy, to describe the novel’s deficiencies rather than its qualities, simply because the deficiencies are easily described, and the qualities aren’t. And these qualities, furthermore, are unique to Dickens: no other author could create what are essentially caricatures, and endow them with such richness and vitality that they seem to exist even outside the confines of the novel. And that, I think, is the point: these characters seem to exist outside the novel, as well as in them. It doesn’t really matter what bits of intrigue Fagin gets involved in to drive the plot forward: what we retain in our mind are the static pictures of Fagin in  his den, or of Fagin in  his condemned cell – pictures which do not advance the  novel in any way, but which resonate even outside the context of the plot. In contrast, the villain Monks is not memorable at all because he had been invented not for his own sake, but purely to move the plot on.

I remember when I first read the book as a child, I found it difficult to see Fagin as a villain, despite the often villainous things he does. I suppose it’s because it was obvious to me, even then, that had it not been for Fagin, Oliver would have starved to death on the streets. Yes, Fagin exploits the boys; but is what he does worse than what the authorities do to the children? Reading it as a child, I remember thinking that I’d much rather being Fagin’s gang than under the tender mercies of Mr Bumble and the parochial board at the workhouse. And I think I was right. If anything, the abuse meted out to the children by the authorities is far worse than anything Fagin does, as that abuse is, among other things, a wanton cruelty, a betrayal of trust. In Lionel Bart’s musical, Fagin (winningly played by Ron Moody in the film) becomes a lovable rogue, and the transformation isn’t too difficult. It would have been a far harder task to have presented Mr Bumble as likable.

But of course, there’s the antisemitism. That Fagin is a grossly anti-Semitic character can hardly be disputed: his Jewish characteristics are accentuated, and he is referred to throughout as “the Jew”. Dickens himself was shocked that his portrayal of Fagin had caused offence, and he wrote to a Jewish journal disclaiming any bigotry; but I suppose the fact that Dickens could create such a character and not even be aware of any bigotry on his part merely shows how deeply rooted the bigotry was. Of course, in a much later novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens gave us Mr Riah, and gentle, kind-hearted Jew who is derided for his Jewishness, and who is made to carry the blame for acts committed by Christians. Some have seen this as Dickens trying to make amends for Fagin, but I think that’s unlikely: had he wanted to make amends, he wouldn’t have waited some thirty years to do so. No – it’s more likely, I think, that the antisemitism in Oliver Twist was involuntary, and unconscious. But however that may be, it still sticks in the throat; and that he is perhaps the most vivid and living character in the entire novel, and further, that it is very easy, despite his villainy, to feel sympathy for him (especially in that very grim chapter towards the end where, completely isolated at this stage from the rest of humanity, he is sentenced to death), don’t go too far in mitigation.

It is easy to feel more than a touch of sympathy for the child pickpockets also. Only two are presented as characters – Charley Bates, a young man who obviously enjoys his calling (although Dickens does let him reform at the end), and the unforgettable Artful Dodger. Dodger’s appearance in the dock is among the greatest comic scenes in all literature: never has authority been quite so effectively put down as it is here. And, whatever moralising there may be in the rest of the novel, we are here entirely on the Dodger’s side – as, I think, Dickens had intended. The authorities have him transported for being a thief; but had he not been a thief, they would have brutalised him, and starved him, and beaten him. And probably killed him, as they killed so many others. These are the authorities whose representatives and functionaries include the likes of the pompous and unfeeling beadle Mr Bumble, and the cruel and nasty magistrate Mr Fang. What moral right do these authorities have to pass judgement on the Dodger? Or on anyone else? Dickens does not pose this question in so many words, but it is certainly more than merely implicit here.

Oliver himself, though, seems strangely uncharacterised. We know from the early chapters of David Copperfield how well Dickens remembered and how vividly he could portray the workings of a child’s mind, but we see none of that here. For Oliver, despite having been born in a workhouse and raised in an environment of neglect and wanton cruelty, acts and thinks like a child with a secure, middle-class background. For instance, he can read, although it is at no point described where he learnt to do so. He is horrified when he sees the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates picking pockets, when really, given his background, there is no reason why he should be. Later, he is similarly horrified by the burglary in which he is unwittingly involved, and resolves to raise the alarm rather than let Sikes and the others make off with middle class property. He is, throughout, well-behaved and well-spoken, both highly unlikely given his toxic upbringing. One can but wonder why Dickens, with his prodigious imagination, refused to enter into the mind of a child who had been brutalised, who had not, throughout his entire childhood, ever heard a kind word or witnessed a generous act. Would a more realistic picture of Oliver have alienated the sympathies of his readership? I am not sure. But, given his background, I would have expected Oliver to have been a far more troubled child than he appears here.

However, let’s not dwell on this. Let us not dwell either on the cloying sentimentality with which the Maylies – especially Rose Maylie – are presented. Anyone could pick out such things. It is more difficult to pinpoint what it is that makes this seemingly naïve and unsophisticated little tale so compelling some two hundred years later; what it is that makes it come alive so vividly on the page; what it is precisely that imprints itself so indelibly on the reader’s mind.

Oliver Twist was a very early novel: Dickens was still only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this, and he was writing it at the same time as he was writing the later episodes of Pickwick Papers. What seems notable is that, having given us an essentially sunny and comic novel, Dickens seemed, very deliberately, to go to the other extreme, and present us with vivid pictures of darkness. And, whatever the weaknesses, the dark pictures presented in this novel are likely to remain in our collective consciousness for some time yet.

7 responses to this post.

  1. I just finished this novel, and I agree with everything you said. Yes, the plot is sort of crude compared to many other Victorian works. The characters do seem vivid and memorable, though Oliver is perhaps the least fleshed out character. I would rather read David Copperfield again, but Oliver Twist was alright. I definitely noticed the anti-semitism as well. I kept thinking how people would probably riot if a book came out now where a character was referred to as “The Mexican.”

    Reply

    • Hello Lily,
      I think, for all its many faults, there will never come a time when people won’t be reading Oliver Twist. That it can triumph even over such grave shortcomings is an indication of how remarkable its virtues are!

      Best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by janet on December 19, 2018 at 9:37 pm

    I’m very good at misremembering things, but I believe Dickens remained baffled and defensive about the charges of anti-semitism until he sold his beloved house to a Jewish couple. As I recall, the couple were huge fans, but the wife took the opportunity of asking him what the heqq he was thinking in creating such a viciously anti-semitic character as Fagin. Dickens listened to her argument that such portrayals gave felt reality to stereotypes that were actually quite damaging in real terms to Jewish people. He was taken aback. He was selling his home to these people, so it’s not like he believed all Jews were Fagins. As you noted, the characters in Oliver Twist are all pretty cartoonish–pretty much all based on stereotypes. From a literary standpoint, Fagin is a masterpiece, but Dickens couldn’t deny that one of his most compelling (and beloved in a way) characters was constructed on an extremely negative and popularly believed conception of what Jewish people were like. It didn’t matter what HE thought; the damaging thing was what his readers took away. Again, as I recall, he told the lady he would try to make amends with a new character. That may all be anecdotal, but that’s what I hear’d.

    The other offensive stereotype he employed is at the root of all the problems you listed. Oliver is born to the workhouse by circumstance only–his natural (that is, genetic) British middle class gentility endows him with superior virtue that cannot be bred out of the boy by mere cruelty and hunger. No, he has (thanks to his pedigree) an intuitive sense of moral uprightness and justice (at least toward himself), and his healthful glow (which can belong to no one but a true gentleman) inevitably leads his rightful peers to embrace and save him from the essentially irredeemable low-lifes with whom he involuntarily consorts. Fagin possesses an entire flock of children to whom such sympathies have never been and never can be extended–they inhabit the class to which they belong. The cruelest people are the ones in between the Brownlows and the Sikeses–those who bumblingly seek the respectability of Mr. Brownlow but are at a cellular level no better than Bill Sikes.

    Over time, Dickens evolved as both an author and a social observer. He sometimes worked with stereotypes and sometimes upended them. Scrooge is notably a moneychanger who is NOT a Jew–an anomaly in Victorian literature, though not in Victorian finance. David Copperfield IS crushed by circumstance and if he retains his native goodness, it is because he was of an age to remember his upbringing and have a keen sense of the injustice coming his way, not through misfortune but through wanton, deliberate cruelty. Pip and Estella DO benefit from their educations and achieve a higher rank on the social ladder (especially Estella) despite the loss of their expected fortunes; they become better though sadder people, alienated from both roots and aspirations–but they do not become Bumbles. Somehow the reader is left with a sense that they will find their way–they aren’t doomed, they aren’t disgraced, they aren’t to be punished for ‘forgetting their place.’

    Our Mutual Friend is such a grim book, really harrowing in places. Yet in the midst of it, there’s this dud of a character doing his darndest to overturn the Jewish moneylender stereotype. Dickens’ portrayal of Riah has some really interesting angles, but like all Dickens’ least successful characters, he is just too good to be human. Fagin, on the other hand, is mixed and torn and sick in spirit, diseased in this mind, unscrupulous in ‘business,’ yet as you note, he alone actually cares about his ‘labor force.’ He sees Nancy as a human being with a heart and a mind; he recognizes the needs and vulnerabilities of his boys–he FEEDs them and provides them with safety and shelter when no one else will. He’s a villain only in that he is a criminal and represents the underworld from which Oliver must escape–but that is actually not his primary role. Fagin serves to make the reader question the rightness of a socially approved system of managing people ‘below them,’ as Nephew Fred calls them, by forcing them to consider that a life of crime may in fact be more humane, and inescapable, than the ‘assistance’ imposed by an ignorant and self-righteous society–ironically, the society to which Oliver by birth belongs.

    Reply

    • This is great; I hadn’t noticed the parallel between Fagin’s school for pickpockets and the orphanage, and the ironic difference in how the children are treated. Also that’s well-spotted about how the orphanage is viewed as a social good where Fagin’s work is all criminal.

      Oliver himself shares the weakness of most of Dicken’s protagonists: so pure they are almost transparent and not particularly interesting.

      Reply

      • It’s difficult to make good people interesting, isn’t it? Although, strangely enough, Dickens himself pulled off that trick several times – the Peggottys, Joe Gargery, the Boffins, etc. But, you”ll rightly say, these aren’t protagonists. Dickens’ good protagonists are all (Pickwick excepted) deadly dull. It’s only when he started creating flawed protagonists (Pip comes readily to mind) do they become interesting.

    • Hello Janet,
      I knew Dickens has sold his house to a Jewish couple, but I hadn’t known Dickens had promised to make reparations for Fagin. I don’t think Dickens had any malicious feelings towards Jews, but it seems incredible that he didn’t realise just how offensive the character is.

      I think you’re right about Dickens’ class prejudice here also: Oliver is a good lad because he comes from middle class stock, and that shows despite his upbringing. But it was a convention that all protagonists have what are in essence middle class manners and middle class sensitivities. Even as late as Great Expectations Pip, for instance, who really is working class, does not speak in dialect, although he would, most likely, have spoken like Joe Gargery. In his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, Lizzie Hexam, despite having grown up in the lowest depths of society, speaks and acts very much like a lady. I suppose this was a narrative convention. Certainly, in these late novels, Dickens explicitly speaks out against class prejudice.

      As you say, Dickens evolved in all sorts of ways over the years. But yes, I agree, the class prejudice he denounced in his later works is certainly present here.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by alan on December 24, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    ” Would a more realistic picture of Oliver have alienated the sympathies of his readership?”.
    Yes.
    I think that convention morphed in more recent coming of age novels into unexpected competence when faced with an unexpected challenge.

    Reply

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